from The Life of Countess Tereza
The next night, they sat on the floor of her room and prepared to travel to the Other Side. Tereza still had her doubts. “Priyas, you may have no fear, but you’re his son, I’m just one of his subjects. He has noticed me.”
“But that’s because you are with me, Tereza, and while you are with me you need not fear.” She stared at him and he smiled back. His thought was clear to her—he was stronger than his father. She was dubious. She wasn’t completely sure he was stronger than her. And what of his brothers? She knew the succession procedure.
He read all this on the surface of her mind, and he replied with his lips: “They are but children, now, and now is all that matters.”
“Children? One is as old as you, another just a couple of years younger.”
“They are children,” Priyas said again, smiling. “Their mothers were weak.”
“But He is teaching them,” she said.
“But you are teaching me. And now is all that matters. Fear not.”
With difficulty she calmed her mind for trance. She sprinkled some of the proper powder onto the cup of dark wine and in moments they were tumbling past the shreds of powerless evil and into the spiral arch. As soon as they were on their feet, he led them down the avenue, down the curving stairs and into the City. He hastened on and she practically ran to keep up with him. Fear not, indeed, she thought. She was afraid of where he was leading them and deathly afraid to be separated from him now.
They were in the square with the creepy statue. Wait, she called, but he strode right up to the wide low stone door of the domed building. They stood before the door, Priyas smiling smugly upon it, Tereza casting a glance back at the statue. He placed a hand upon the door and with a slight pressure it swung back.
Before them was the round chamber beneath the dome. A diluted moonlight fell upon the scene: the full moon flying above a dense mat of clouds this night. There was nothing to be seen in this room but one thing, or else the room was written on every inch with runes of power and ancient secret.
In the middle of the room was a throne, a seat of stone atop seven stone steps, and the seat seemed to be empty. Priyas gave Tereza a smiling backward glance, then walked to the foot of the throne. There he stood for a time, looking up at the object of his great desire. Still the silence was complete. He looked back, held out a hand to her. It occurred to her that something was perhaps behind her, and she glided forward to his side. He gripped her hand and smiled, and then he let go and ascended the steps. At the top he turned, still smiling.
Something brushed past Tereza.
She looked up and saw things with great black wings gliding up at Priyas where he stood. But he laughed, and sat down upon the throne, and called to them in a strange tongue, and they landed about him like three oversized myna birds. He looked down upon her, and she saw him again as she had once before: glorious and enlightened and imbued with a beneficent power. Then her sight changed and she glimpsed the black clouds that floated above the universe’s surface.
A sound came to her ears, like stone scraping against stone, or scales dragging on the hard ground. Priyas stood and held out his hand to her. Come, he called to her, ascend and join me and we can defeat anything.
No, she replied fervently, It is coming and I am not ready. She was being lured into a deadly struggle and she wasn’t sure she had any stake in it. She backed away, not toward the door onto the square but toward an opening at the back of the room.
But I need you, and I promise you that we together are strong enough to defeat him. Join me, Tereza!
Name me not! she cried out, continuing her retreat.
He stood at the top of the steps and raised his hands to the dome. Do my will, he spoke to the bird things, do not let any other power approach this seat. He came down the steps and started toward her, as casually as if he were going to walk her home from the café. Then with a united cry the creatures launched themselves into the air and dove upon something in the doorway, and Priyas jumped. He ran, pulling Tereza along with him. She tried to look back as they ran back into darkness. She could not see what was going on in the door, but something black was there, hidden by the bird-things.
They ran through a small door and out into a curving hall. Then they found steps and descended far into the blackness. Always he ran ahead, and always she strove to keep from losing him in the eternal subterranean night. They dodged this way and that until she had no idea how far they had gone in which direction—and then she felt fresh air, and he was leading her up a steep incline. They climbed out, splashed through dirty water and then pulled themselves up from the sewers to stand in the street of the city.
“Avigon,” she said. “How did we return?”
“That place is in both worlds,” he said, laughing. “That was it, Tereza. It’s started. Soon we will prevail!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she replied, “but I could use a drink. Tell me we’re not sitting on the rug in my bedroom.”
“We’re here,” he said. “When we came through the Throne Room, we were there, and no longer in trance. Your room is empty.”
“The throne room. Really. And with any luck,” she added, “the candles have blown out and my flat isn’t on fire. Do you have a shilling for a bottle of wine?”
“A florin,” he replied, pulling out a gold coin with a flower on one side and the Grand Duke of Avigon on the other. “Tonight, the good wine. At the café in the University Quarter. He might as well find me there as anywhere. Better there, for there I have more power than he thinks.”
“Oh,” she said, as they turned and walked down the street. “Great.”
“You are my strength,” he replied. “I need you.”
An hour later they had joined the crowd at the café. As usual, Tereza sat silent while the men held forth; what was not usual was the liveliness of Priyas. He interjected wittily; he waxed philosophical; he told amusing anecdotes; compliments flowed from him; he laughed at the right places and agreed with everyone, except when he was good-naturedly jabbing. Thelonas and Gramond found themselves on the same side, whichever side it was that Priyas was stoutly defending. For once, Tereza was silently not enjoying the show. She reached out to the nearest relatively normal person, which was Ericus, the morality student. He was typically quiet, being a somewhat clumsy conversationalist. What did he make of all this?
The mind of Ericus was clean and orderly, and since she hardly knew him she found it easy to browse about without attracting attention. He was following the conversation, he was worrying about what his mentor Margara really thought of him, he was trying not to drink too fast, he was admiring Tereza’s tits out of the corner of his eye—you could almost see her nipples! He was also wondering what was with Priyas. She watched her lover through the eyes of this quiet and serious young man, and the contrast was inescapable. Priyas, seen from Ericus’s head, was even more beautiful, now that he revealed himself, even more powerful than he seemed to Tereza, who was a little bit used to him. She relaxed and watched, while the pretty black-haired girl in the low-cut black dress sat and gazed at her glass with a faraway look in her eye.
Something was happening, but Ericus didn’t know what it was. Priyas stopped in mid-sentence. Gramond, Margara and Sandros looked toward the street. The wind rose in a sudden gust. Thelonas got out half of a sarcastic remark. The coal-haired girl still sat, gazing at her glass.
Suddenly she could see it: the air around Priyas, black with the moist night, condensing in cold coils. He was struggling with it, struggling with the fabric of local space. She watched with horror from Ericus’s clueless eyes. The great snake was closing upon the beautiful young man in a grip that no one had ever lived through.
But Priyas, even as he realized the strength of that suffocating force, kept his senses. He reached out for a resource that no one before had ever had in this dire need—Tereza. He touched the part of her that still resided in her own skull, in her own heart, took strength from her into himself. The coils clenched on his spirit’s throat; he took sustaining air from her desire for him. They struggled in stalemate, snake and man, father and son, Emperor and he who would be, and no such struggle had ever been. Thelonas and Gramond saw before their eyes that which they might have debated for hour upon hour, presuming that they would never have the proof.
The thing redoubled its attack upon Priyas, and his face twisted grotesquely. His hand reached out to touch Tereza’s to draw sweet life’s strength from her. The black-haired girl flinched back this time, but it was too late: it saw. She was his lifeline. It need only slay the girl, and its foe would be doomed. The black thing reached out for her heart, its fangs dripping with poison.
Deadly peril at last aroused Tereza’s wrath and pride. The Clanish cat leapt upon the head of the thing from her hiding place in the mind of Ericus. The snake struck back, and she heard a thump behind her. She had no time to consider—it had missed her and would not miss again. It reared back upon Priyas, who sat sideways, askew in his chair, his eyes staring out from the purple mask of his face. It was about to lunge, but it was worn out with the fight. There was no time or need for thought. The cat pounced upon the snake’s neck before it could strike again. She bit once. It was over.
Tereza was slumped back in her chair when she came to. Except for her, no one living still sat at the table. Margara and Sandros and Thelonas and Gramond stood around with a dozen other café dwellers. She stirred, and they all jumped. She looked at Priyas: he was dead, the bruises of strangling on his neck and head, and it looked as if his neck might be broken as well. Then she noticed Ericus, slumped forward on the table, his wine glass spilled. She jumped up.
“That bastard!” she cried. “It was me it struck at!”
The crowd just gawked at her. A dozen fully-formed thoughts passed through her mind as she composed herself. She reached out into the ether about her. It was as she guessed. There was one more dead thing nearby, but this one was not visible to the bystanders.
This is the fourth in the series of excerpts I’ve been posting, one per day, this month when I will turn 61 years of age. They are in chronological order: Tereza was the fourth novel I finished, around 2001, and the one I took the longest and found the hardest to complete. This is (like most of the excerpts) from early on, when Tereza is still young; trust me, she’s still killing Emperors when she’s over seventy.
If you want to read a full manuscript of anything you see here, let me know and I will send you one FOR FREE!